Political scientist Charles Murray’s visit to Middlebury last March triggered protests and violence. This fall, Murray is slated to speak at Harvard on September 6th as part of the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative’s speaker series. It is understandable why many are outraged by Murray’s ideas. In his controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve, Murray drew a connection between race and intelligence, chalking up the lower socioeconomic status of people of color to genetically lower IQ. Though his ideas may be worthy of anger, come this fall we should do the opposite of what Middlebury did. Let’s welcome Charles Murray with open arms to Harvard. Ultimately, the best way to counter objectionable ideas is to engage with them, and the Open Campus Initiative is dedicated to facilitating this engagement. To add to this, as Harvard students we are especially equipped to engage with Murray’s ideas due to the relatively academic nature of his arguments.
The best way to tear down ideas that upset us is to engage with them. Middlebury students passed over a golden opportunity to point out the numerous holes in the ideology that they so detested. They were too focused on the fact that Murray had an opportunity to speak to remember that they possessed one as well. Come this fall, we must remember that our voices—and our engagement—matters. In the words of President Faust—and according to the Harvard Crimson, the beauty of free speech is that “you’re free to say what you want” but that “you’re also free to take hits for saying things that are stupid or prejudicial or uniformed.” Murray has already voiced loudly and clearly his views. It is our turn to make him feel the heat for those views.
We should welcome Murray because Harvard is the perfect place to engage with—and tear down—his ideas. Harvard’s Open Campus Initiative is dedicated to facilitating a vibrant exchange between Murray and the Harvard community. In an interview with the HPR, Open Campus Initiative president Conor Healy ‘19 commented, “[Murray] should have the opportunity to participate in discussion, to argue for his views, and Harvard students that disagree with him ought to have the opportunity to ask him questions.” The goal is to allow students an opportunity to disagree with Murray, not simply to give Murray’s ideas an unchallenged platform.
Though the exact format of the talk has not been finalized, Healy reinforced that the group is committed to facilitating as much interaction between Murray and the Harvard community as possible. According to Healy, Murray’s visit will most likely consist of a prepared presentation by Murray, followed by a substantial period of time for student questions. “My goal is to pull off at least 60 minutes of questions,” said Healy. “That would give students the opportunity to really voice their concerns. Otherwise what would the point be, you know?”
We are also uniquely positioned to engage with Murray’s ideas due to the academic nature of his arguments. Speakers such Milo Yiannoupolous are more difficult to engage with constructively since they spew erratic commentary such as, “Muslims are allowed to get away with anything.” In the case of Milo, it is difficult to determine exactly how he arrives at his conclusions. The ideas just sort of float untethered to any thought process that can be engaged or grappled with. In an interview with Bloomberg, Milo rejoiced, “Everybody is trolling everybody. … We live in a post-fact era. It’s wonderful.” This lack of undergirding evidence makes Milo’s ideas harder to attack. Murray is the opposite: the ideas he lays out in The Bell Curve rest on an academic argument supported by data. Furthermore, his argument and his evidence are immortalized in writing. In that sense, the source of the ostensible legitimacy and credibility for his ideas also provides a gateway to their destruction. Besides, who better to assess the merits of an academic argument than Harvard students?
This fall, I would love to see Murray grilled by a statistics concentrator who has dug into the dubious statistical methods in his book. I would be thrilled to hear a history concentrator challenge his social Darwinist claim that those at the top of America’s socioeconomic ladder are there due to the natural rise of the “Cognitive Elite,” rather than a history of enslavement, segregation, and discrimination. Come this fall, it would be fantastic to see a psychology concentrator who has studied IQ tests dispute Murray’s central holding that the IQ tests measure pure intelligence, independent of socioeconomic or educational status.
However, let me be clear: I am not arguing that we should allow Murray to speak because he makes pseudo-scientific arguments, while other “un-academic” speakers should be shunned. It’s a dangerous game to try to draw a line between who and who cannot speak. I firmly agree with Supreme Court that the only speech that should be censored is speech that inflicts “injury or tend[s] to incite an immediate breach of peace.” When we censor any other free speech we risk far more than we have to gain. I believe that there is a place for all speakers at Harvard so long as there speech could not lead to physical danger or disruption. My point is that we should be licking our chops—extra excited—to welcome Charles Murray, rather than turn him away like Middlebury, because his type of argument is especially vulnerable to our methods.
We would not be reinventing the wheel in our efforts to practice constructive engagement with those we vehemently disagree with: The Black Students Association and W.E.B Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research sponsored a talk by Murray at Harvard back in 1995. If we are serious about tackling Murray’s ideas, then we should welcome him to Harvard him this fall just as he was welcomed 22 years ago. Welcome him not because we agree with him—but because we understand that faulty claims and ideologies only fall when they are probed and challenged. Harvard is the perfect place for such probing, and Murray is the perfect target due to the relatively factual nature of his arguments. According to the Crimson, student protestors of the 1995 talk explained, “[They’re] going to ask Charles Murray questions that will make him shake in his pants, contesting him on intellectual grounds.” Let’s follow that example.
Image Credit: Flickr, Gage Skidmore